The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

the god of small things

Oh look! A novel I had planned to review last year because 2017 marked its 20th birthday. What? It’s January 2018 now? Whoops. Oh well.

The God of Small Things wasn’t the best fiction I read in 2017 (That minor honor goes to Shelter by Jung Yun, which I have yet to review), but I couldn’t get it out of my head months after finishing it.

The God of Small Things focuses on a trope I have always loved and Roy built a family saga around it. The trope in question? A noble house in decay.

Roy chose a fascinating period in the decline of an esteemed house. The God of Small Things wasn’t written in chronological order, but as our mind figures out the story’s linear timeline, we realize that the story enters at a point where the house is already in decay and losing prestige. The current generation is simultaneously in denial and attempting to stave away the inevitable.

So we turn the pages awaiting a climax, after which the house loses all standing, good name, and even its income.


The God of Small Things starts with church rites. Sophie Mol, the nine-year-old half-British and half-Indian daughter of family heir Chacko, is dead. We know that Ammu, Chacko’s sister, and her twin children Rahel and Esthra were somehow seen as responsible for Sophie’s death. They were ostracized and pointed at during the funeral.

We are then launched into stories of various family members: the current clan and the older generation. Their backgrounds and most revealing anecdotes are told, creating fully realized characters. No one in this sprawling family is likable. In fact, the whole pack seriously needed copious therapy. All I see, page after page, is delusion, hypocrisy, petty drama, incompetence, and recklessness.

But then, is it a surprise when the man who built the family name was odious? A violent husband and an abusive father, but toadying towards the colonialists, his family cannot escape his clutches long after his death.

Decay and suffocation are themes that infuse The God of Small Things. When the timeline starts, Kerala, where the novel is set, was verdant and beautiful. When twin daughter Rahel returned as an adult woman, her hometown has become a tourist trap where water no longer supports life. The fish are dead and belly-up. The house falls, the land polluted. There is decay and there is inertia, the sense that everything stays the same, yet rot inevitably infests. There are fathers with great hopes for their sons but sons grow up to be menial men with mediocre jobs and class stays unchanged.


The prose of The God of Small Things is famously divisive. It took me a while to finally take the plunge and read as I feared the novel required complete focus, with a dense writing style and a tangled family tree. Nah. Everything’s easy to follow.

The poetic flourishes of The God of Small Things reads childlike and excited to my eyes, rather than esoteric. Makes sense. While we are given an omnipresent view of nearly all the family members, a sizable chunk of the novel’s voice is heard from the twins Rahel and Esthra – children when the story begins, devastated adults at the novel’s end.

Overall, I took pleasure in Roy’s writing style, but the prose can and does cross the realm into being irritatingly overwritten. The God of Small Things is deeply descriptive, lyrical, and lush. Roy turned her pen and her senses to describe absolutely everything. The season’s overripe mangoes got a page’s worth of writing. It does get tiresome and The God of Small Things isn’t even a long novel. My edition is around 340 pages, but 40 pages of the book’s excessive detail could have been easily cut to produce a stronger novel: beautifully written and focused.

(Because dear god, sometimes I thought: right, can we get on with the actual story? Please?)


Despite my quibbles with the writing style, The God of Small Things is a rich novel, full of themes to unpack and beautiful imagery.

I thought the climax and mystery surrounding Sophie Mol’s death were predictable. I guessed what happened not even a quarter into reading the book. No matter – I don’t think Roy was ever invested in the mystery either: the themes, characters, and overall story were what was emphasized.

Here’s a question: why hasn’t the BBC commissioned a miniseries on The God of Small Things? I mean, it’s got the big themes they love: class and colonialism. That alone should have gotten the agents talking.

Advertisement

5 thoughts on “The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

  1. I read this many, many years ago–and absolutely loved it. I remember thinking the writing was beautiful and poetic. But reading your review, I realize that I don’t remember much of the story at all–and now I wonder if I’d have patience for the writing style. It surprises me how my tastes evolve as I get older. Might just have to pick it up again to see…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh dear, I apologize. For some reason, I had thought I already replied to this comment.

      I completely understand the fickleness of personal taste. I recently reread the first Harry Potter and I was astonished that the elements I found boring as a child (the first chapters with the Dursleys) were what I most enjoyed now in my late twenties. The opening chapters has a wonderful, rural British fiction feel that I absolutely love. Plus, Rowling’s description of Mr. and Mrs. Dursley is Austen-esque; who wouldn’t love that? Meanwhile, the plot of the novel doesn’t grab be the way it used to as a child…

      What type of books did you like when you read The God of Small Things and what do you enjoy now?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting question! I don’t really remember what I was reading in the mid-nineties. I wish I’d kept a reading journal. I think Roy was my first exposure to Indian writers, which sent me off on a long love affair with authors from that country. I love books about the colonial or immigrant experience now, or like you, books that take to other countries and perhaps give me a feel for life there. And it’s so much easier to find novels on these topics because of the internet, and especially book bloggers!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s